The Trap of Perfectionism

'Whether it is for riches or thinness, fitness or knowledge or fame, the desire for perfection shuts out all other people and pleasures one by one. It is an addiction like cocaine: even more deadly in proportion to its purity' ' F. Forrester Church

Self-acceptance, an acceptance of one's imperfections and weaknesses, is very difficult for perfectionists. A perfectionist can hang from a fragile ladder just so that a bit of dust might be dusted off the curtain-rod. Similarly, some parents refuse their children proper sleep or playtime just so that they can top the class. Some partners sulk for days because something was not kept back in its usual place. Some bosses even flare up if the tea is not served in a particular cup or tray!

By itself, the desire for perfection is not bad; however when the desire becomes unmanageable and results in rage and depression it becomes counter-productive. When a desire consumes one and makes one lose focus of reality it becomes worrisome; a quirk deepens and transforms into a destructive character-flaw. Perfectionists are unhappy both with themselves and with the environment.

Is there a way out? Fortunately there is.

The individual who otherwise seeks the mirage of perfection starts to seek improvement in its place. Improvement is always within reach and always attainable. While improvement is a realistic goal, perfection isn't. When the desire for perfection is at its highest it can lead to tragic consequences.

Most suicide victims are perfectionists at sixes and sevens with reality. They neither understand nor accept what is going on. In her last interview before her suicide, Natasha Singh, daughter-in-law of Natwar Singh, expressed all the classic views of a dangerously on-the-brink perfectionist. Natasha admitted that she aimed at very high goals. While her circumstances were certainly sad, it is quite clear that she was doomed more as a result of her unrealistic thinking, her internal state, than because of her unhappy externals. Like other perfectionists, she had painted herself into a corner, an impossible situation to get out of. No tree can be well grounded if it is rooted in the soil of perfectionism. Such a soil is too weak to support the tree through the storms of life.

In his book, 'Feeling Good' Dr David Burns has noted that perfectionists fall into certain traps: they think in terms of extremes, black-or-white; they tend to magnify their mistakes while minimizing their achievements: when they err, they conclude, 'I always make mistakes'; when complimented for work done well they pay no attention. They indulge in negative self-talk generously sprinkled with 'should and should not' statements. Such thoughts reduce self-esteem which leads to depression and which can finally culminate in suicide.

One of the many ways to counter negative or unrealistic thinking is to say, 'So what? Yes, there is some dust on the cupboard, I don't have a proper ladder to reach it, let it be, my life won't stop if it remains there!' Again one can laugh at oneself and say, 'Here I go again!' and thus reject the perfectionist trap. Negative thoughts such as, 'Nobody loves me!' can be met with, 'Rubbish, I am as loved as most people I know' or with, ' of course that's crap, look at Elizabeth Taylor. Even after so many divorces she's giving herself a chance, why can't I?' Finally one can always say, 'All humans make mistakes, I made a mistake because I am supposed to make a mistake. I am a member of the human being club!'

The wisest words ever written were 'This, too, shall pass'. No situation remains forever. Things change, times change. One must focus on the future and its possibilities and release oneself from an idealized self-image. To have a happy well-adjusted life one must learn from Jerry.

Jerry, the manager of a restaurant, is always positive and happy about life. When anybody asks him how he is, he replies, "If I were any better, I would be twins!" His happiness is infectious and other waiters switched jobs along with him. They wanted to be around him! When asked how he was always positive, he answered:

'Each morning I wake up and say to myself, I have two choices today. I can choose to be in a good mood or I can choose to be in a bad mood. I always choose to be in a good mood. Each time something bad happens, I can choose to be a victim or I can choose to learn from it. I always choose to learn from it. You choose how you react to situations. You choose how people will affect your mood. You choose to be in a good mood or bad mood. It's your choice how you live your life."

Several years later Jerry was seriously wounded by a bullet in a shoot-out at his restaurant. He was quickly rushed to the hospital. After 18 hours of surgery and weeks of intensive care, Jerry was released from the hospital with fragments of the bullets still in his body. Later he recounted what had gone through his mind:

"Then, after they shot me, as I lay on the floor, I remembered that I had two choices: I could choose to live or to die. I chose to live. In the Emergency Room when I saw the expressions on the faces of the doctors and nurses, I read 'He's a dead man.' I knew I needed to take action. A nurse was shooting questions at me and she asked if I was allergic to anything. Yes, I answered. They all stopped working as they waited for my reply. I yelled, 'Bullets!' Over their laughter, I told them, 'I am choosing to live. Please operate on me as if I am alive, not dead'.'

Jerry lived thanks to the skill of his doctors, but also because of his amazing choice. Perfectionism leads us to make negative choices, life-threatening ones at times. We don't have to be perfect to be happy, we only have to be positive to be happy!  


More by :  Lata Jagtiani

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